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This Week in Technology - 3D Printing

As future lawyers, it is important for us to stay up to date with changes in the law. But it’s also important to keep up with other changes in the economy, politics, and industry, as they are all influenced by (and often have influence on) the law. Understanding the symbiotic relationship between the law and these other institutions is important in making us better lawyers as well as better participants in society.

One such industry that is expected to undergo massive growth in the next few years is 3D printing. In case you aren’t familiar, 3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—is a method of producing objects of virtually any shape based on a digital model. 3D printing is distinct from traditional machining techniques in that traditional manufacturing mostly relies on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling, whereas 3D printing is achieved using an additive process where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. The difference may sound trivial, but the process has many benefits and near-endless possibilities.

The paybacks of 3D printing are difficult to enumerate. In the future, 3D printing could be used to produce anything from broken car parts to replacement organs or limbs. It depends on the progress of technology—and developments with the law.

Take my example of printing replacement parts for your car. Say, hypothetically, you download the blueprints to replace a specific part for a specific car. The part is printed and replaced, and then it fails, causing an accident. In a traditional tort setting, a plaintiff would probably try and establish a causal link between the manufacturer and the part. In this scenario, however, part schematics for 3D printing might be obtained through multiple means, some of which may be legally dubious (think about the current issues regarding intellectual property piracy). Would the person who printed the part be liable? What about the 3D printer manufacturer? Would anyone else?

This is just one of many issues that arise when predicting the impact of 3D printing on the law. The legal and ethical ramifications of the more technologically remote aspects of 3D printing, such as organ and limb fabrication, are as dubious as they are speculative. But as the wheel of progress turns, these issues move ever closer to the limelight. And I think it’s pretty exciting that it will likely be our generation of lawyers who will decide how these society-changing developments are regulated.

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